'Backspot' Is Worth Cheering For

Directed by D.W. Waterson

Starring Devery Jacobs, Evan Rachel Wood, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Noa DiBerto, Thomas Antony Olajide, Wendy Crewson

Photo: D.W. Waterson

BY Rachel HoPublished May 30, 2024


Growing up, cheerleading was seen as something the popular girls did — those dainty, bubbly personalities who clapped their hands together with an enthusiasm I could never muster. It's an image cultivated primarily through teen movies of the '90s and '00s, most famously by the Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union classic Bring It On. But it's a new dawn for young women, and D.W. Waterson's cheerleading-focused film Backspot brings our perceptions into a new era while demonstrating that some things about the female experience will never change.

Starring Devery Jacobs as Riley and Kudakwashe Rutendo as Amanda, Backspot follows the two high school students in their pursuit of competitive cheerleading. Along with their friend Rachel (Noa DiBerto), Riley and Amanda have been selected to join the Thunderhawks, an elite cheerleading squad coached by Eileen McNamara (Evan Rachel Wood). As the team prepare for a big competition just weeks away, we follow the trio as they navigate the pressures placed on them by Eileen and themselves.

Typically, the best sports movies have little to do with the sport itself — they're merely the vehicle to tell a compelling story about perseverance and/or hardship. In the case of Backspot though, the sport, with all its historic perceptions, serves as a storytelling device. Part metaphor, part mirror, Waterson and their co-writer Joanne Sarazen asks audiences of a certain age to reassess our attitudes and prejudices.

Even just calling cheerleading a sport raises an eyebrow or two (admittedly those included my own as well), and Waterson and Sarazen use that to Backspot's advantage. The film confronts us as an audience to consider why we don't categorize it as a sport. There are times when the script can be a little heavy-handed in this regard, whether it's a certifiable hater coming into the girls' space only to question the merits of an activity that seemingly exists for the male gaze, or Eileen reminding the squad that it isn't enough to simply execute the moves perfectly — they also have to smile and look good while doing it. But the greater goal the script chases after is met regardless.

In addition to the cheerleading and coming-of-age narratives, the film gives space to grant some compassion and warmth to the generations before who didn't have the benefit of films like Backspot. Playing Riley's mother, Wendy Crewson delivers a quiet and powerful performance as a woman raised to believe she was too stupid and too useless to achieve much in life. Many of us will understand her relationship with Riley all too well — daughters raised in a different time caught between our own anxieties and a deep empathy for our mothers, trying to instil some of our generation's confidence into them.

It's a stroke of genius to use cheerleading as not just a microcosm for being a woman, but also as a reflection of the lengthy journey we've gone on to this point. Differing opinions will always be made about to how women young and old should exist in the world, and even if it's hard to admit, many of the loudest and harshest critics tend to come from within our own camp. Backspot concludes on a rather saccharine note that, even if it's difficult (and it is), navigating womanhood becomes less challenging if we support one another and have fun in the process — and it's a note worth cheering from the rooftops.


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